When our daughter, Gréta, called and asked, “are you interested in doing a Forest Bathing?” we said, oh yeah! We knew enough about Forest Bathing, sometimes called forest therapy, to want to experience it. After all, time in nature is preventive health care. Without it we experience more joint pains and body aches and lower sleep quality. Physicians are now recommending Forest Bathing to their stressed patients. Trying out this Japanese activity called Shinrin-yoku sounded like a good plan for a toasty Thursday morning.
From the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy: “Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion [through our senses] in forests and other natural environments. Forest Therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” Studies have demonstrated a wide array of health benefits, especially in the cardiovascular and immune systems, and for stabilizing and improving mood and cognition. We build on those benefits and look beyond, to what happens when people remember that we are a part of nature, not separate from it, and are related to all other beings in fundamental ways.” Therapy Trail paths used are suited for people of most fitness levels. In America, Forest Bathing is not limited to forests, but any nature setting that offers healing energy.
We met Leona, a 35-year-old trained guide in Forest Bathing and a raptor specialist, outside the Denver Botanical Gardens. How cool is that, holding falcons and eagles. Much to Tim’s relief, I didn’t ask her if she’d watched Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds. Leona explained Forest Bathing as both a guided and self-guided experience where a person interacts with nature primarily through their senses. For a place to be suitable (link) it must meet several criteria such as: revealing the beauty and dignity of an ecosystem, a soul feel connection with nature, and bathroom facilities.
“Why a guided walk? Couldn’t you just walk and gain the same benefit (if any)?” the skeptic in me wanted to know. Leona said that people are often so wound up that it’s hard to convince them of the benefit of a guided walk. Was that how I looked to her? “Yes, the walks are important,” she continued, “but it’s through the routines (invitations) that we learn to deepen our relationship with nature, creating a health exchange between the human and the non-human world.” In other words, the guide opens the doors. After a two-to-three-hour-walk, I concluded that the guiding part indeed made it a far more rewarding experience.
Leona’s first invitation to us was to see, “what’s in motion?” We spent ten minutes sauntering (or sitting down), noticing what we saw in nature that was in motion. I looked up and down, moving branches for a look deep into the underbrush. When distracted by sounds or other people, my teacher’s voice told my monkey mind to pay attention to what’s in motion? In the flower beds and around bushes and trees, there were chipmunks, birds, butterflies, the rustling of leaves, and a few sounds whose source was uncertain.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau
Another invitation was to use our sense of touch, to focus on ”texture.” Ten-minutes walking in solitude touching leaves, rocks, a feather. Creating a moment of awareness while withholding judgment. Each ten-minute invitation inched me closer to being in the moment, leaving behind the routine rumbling background noise of the world’s anxiety. Sitting on a boulder rubbing an unusually soft leaf, I marveled how humans and nature, both made of stardust, are deeply connected. Could that account for our love of nature? Or why we equate gardening or watering our indoor plants as moments of tranquility. Did my friend, Beth, gift me Mary Oliver’s book because she believed it would touch my soul as it had hers?
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing you place
in the family of things—Mary Oliver
Another invitation, hearing and touch, to close our eyes, turn in each direction finding one that felt right. Kilian Jornet wrote, “you have to shut your eyes, so you can see the real beauty.” Another was to connect with a tree (Book suggestion: The Hidden Life of Trees) and hear its story and perhaps tell it your own. I picked three trees near one another, each tree a hundred or more years apart, a grandma, mom, and teenage daughter. Each tree told me a story, and I told them mine. The maedgur (an Icelandic word meaning female kinships) were attentive listeners, still, strong, and stoic. The last invitation of taste, a tea ceremony—a Northern Pine tea—under a large maple tree each sharing our experience.
Nature has a way of reminding me that an essential part of being human means taking time for contemplation and integration of all that’s going on in our lives. To pay attention to what’s happening within. It’s not something I gave much thought to in the days of high heels and narrow toe shoes. On that Thursday, my Dansko’s round toes and ample arch support grounded me on nature’s paths as Leona helped me re-experience nature as alive, mindful, and sacred.